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Wrapping up 'Hair'

About the author
Marina Warner is a renowned novelist and cultural critic. She has co-curated the major exhibition on the theme of Metamorphosis at London’s Science Museum.

any number of hairstyles...

All extracts from From the Beast to the Blonde by kind permission of the author.

“The body reveals to us through hair the passage of time and the fluctuating claims of gender; strangers offer us a conspicuous glossary of clues in the way they do the hair on their head, for in societies all over the world, callings are declared through hairy signs: the monk’s tonsure, the ringlets of the Hassidic scholar, the GI’s crewcut, the sanscullotte’s freeflowing mane, the flowerchild’s tangled curls, the veil.”

Paper museums, imaginary exhibitions, colonising representation

There were ‘virtual exhibitions’ before the internet. A patron commissioned printmakers to make images of the pictures he would like to have had in his museum, if only he could. It was a kind of imaginary museum made present through engravings – a ‘paper museum’. The web can make imaginary exhibitions in a similar way, as openDemocracy has done with ‘Hair’.

It is unfortunate, but Bill Gates is also onto this idea, though his version is commercial: he commissions photographers to take images of the world’s great buildings, and makes them available, at a price, with the effect that representations of the world are being copyrighted to Microsoft. An amazing thought. Being very brilliant at making money, he has realised that representation is an area that has not been colonised, so he has marched out there with his invading hordes and annexed representation so the world can’t represent itself to itself.

I saw an article about this in Le Monde. The French are always very quick to notice such things as people taking up positions of mastery and dominance. Intellectual property is a big issue there. They said: is the Place de la Concorde not to be represented except by permission of Bill Gates?

Surviving to remember: hair outlives humans

bog personBog man
‘It is hair’s imperviousness as a natural substance that yields the deeper symbolic meanings and warrants the high place hair plays in the motif repertory of fairy tales and other legends. For although it is one of the most sensitive registers of temperature, and a single human strand is used in museum hygrometers in order to measure humidity for the purposes of conservation, hair does not register pain, except at the roots. It can be cut and curled, sizzled with hot tongs, steeped in chemicals and dyes without apparent suffering, and will go on growing, even abundantly in some cases, and is not even stopped by death. This phenomenon, noted in the case of the great heroes like Charlemagne (d. 814) and Saint Olav, King of Norway (d.1030), stimulated the cult that grew up around their tombs.’

This reminds me of Seamus Heaney ’s marvellous poem – The Grauballe Man – “As if he had been poured/ in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf/ and seems to weep/ the black river of himself.” The paradox of the bog people is that the hair survives even when the body doesn’t. The bog people are not exceptional in having their hair survive; they are exceptional in having their bodies survive intact, preserved, and that brings out the fact that their hair is, too, because we don’t look at decaying bodies and see that their hair hasn’t disintegrated…

Victorian hair braceletVictorian hair bracelet
There are also ancient memorials of hair, not just the Victorian mourning bracelets and jewellery made of hair, or lockets with hair in them, but much older things. Strange often very personal things that I rather like. Even recently, I have an American friend whose mother, when she cut off her daughter’s first golden hair, kept it and had it woven into the wig for her doll. Imagine, the girl had a doll which had her own hair in its first, soft golden character – which of course changes very fast. So if that doll still exists, it will have that hair.

Hair is also interesting because it’s a natural symbol, and has intrinsic properties – and certainly not all symbols do have intrinsic properties. I believe that symbols are very subjective to historical change, but a symbol also grows in thought, according to some of its given characteristics, and in the case of hair there are a number of fascinating intrinsic properties. One of them is its weird relationship to life – that it’s both half-dead and half-alive. You can do things to it that you can’t do to any other part of the body. You can perm it and frizz it and put burning tongs on it, and it doesn’t feel anything, it has no sense, no sensitivity, unlike any other part of the body, so it’s very separate from our consciousness, and not linked to the brain in some strange way…

'Like a fetish, hair can be used to represent loss: it has been used the world over in rituals of fertility and mourning. The Greeks cut locks or tufts of hair to throw on the funeral pyre; hair relics of Charles I after his beheading were set in rings by the disconsolate…Knotted in bracelets and lockets, it also pledges indissoluble love …These ornaments possess the power of the uncanny: neither dead not alive, they make the beholder’s flesh creep, like the human remains incorporated into sorcerer’s wands, or the straggling locks still adhering to the shrunken heads of the Jivaro Indians’ enemies.'
Auschwitz memorial: bales of human hair
The custodians of the Auschwitz memorial had a great problem about how to conserve the hair. Although hair doesn’t disintegrate, it does get dusty. The memorial, which contains these tragic and very eloquent hair-cuttings, is getting rather dusty now, and it’s very difficult to know how to conserve it, and whether it should be revived in order to keep it.

Being beastly: the fear of hairiness

”The motif of bestial hairiness characterises the Devil himself: conventionally he has a furry face (that blue beard), as well as goatish, donkey-like parts – horns, tail, hooves. Saint Jerome translated the demons of Isaiah as pilosi, the hairy ones, in the Vulgate version of the Old Testament (Isaiah, 13:22).”

very hairy

There is a definite affinity seen between hairiness and animal regression. In the puritan 1950s when I was brought up, you felt stigmatised by human hair. Body hair in particular made me feel ashamed because somehow this was to do with carnality, sexuality and the fallen side. Angels, saints in heaven wouldn’t be swarthy but blonde. In medieval illuminations men can be red or dark haired, but all the virgin martyrs are portrayed with long golden hair and very fair skin, suggesting that underneath they’re fair, too.
Medieval nymph: note her flowing locks and hairy chestMartin Schongauer, Wild Woman, Augsburg, late fifteenth century.
I grew up first of all in Egypt, but as a Catholic, brought up by nuns, then in Belgium, where I also was taught by nuns, then in England, with English nuns. As a child, I was aware of Catholicism’s emphasis on the virgin martyrs, who were both very virginal but somehow, with their long blonde hair, also suppressedly sexual, in a rather exciting, masochistic way – at least that’s how they were presented to us.

The Virgin Mary didn’t leave any relics of her hair, or any other body clippings. Nor do any of the other saints. Relics are all coded very differently in Christianity. The blood and bones are holy. Nails and hair are definitely diabolical, and only witches would collect them to cast love-charms with them, because they’re connected somehow to the carnality of the body, to its beastly side. Whereas the blood and the bones, even the interior organs, even whole arms and heads sometimes, were collected as relics. These somehow weren’t tainted with this sexual, sinful charge.

crawling man

Many stories tell of hairiness as an extension or metonymy for sin – sin that is accepted, and therefore by acceptance is somehow redeemed. So when Mary Magdalen repents of her worldliness, she sheds all her clothes, her vanities, her jewels, and then her hair miraculously grows to cover her. This links to the hairy figure as an outcast in the wilderness, the desert where she repents. In her hairiness she bears the marks of her sexual sin upon her, and by accepting them she is redeemed.

Mary Magdalen, by Titian and Donatello
Mary Magdalen, by Titian and Donatello

Donatello’s statue of Mary Magdalen is very similar to depictions of Saint John the Baptist – ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’. Her thickly carved tresses seem more like a pelt than hair. I’m afraid such figures are wild women, outsiders, and a terrible warning to us all.

When Darwinism came along, all this Christian thinking about degradation, and human sexuality, bestiality and closeness to the animals, was then given a curious, twisted confirmation by Darwin’s arguments that we were descended, and so much closer to the animals than previously believed.

Now, with the rise of a much greater acceptance and pleasure in sexuality, there’s ‘big hair’. However problematic and contradictory it all is, and however puritan we are in some respects, ‘big hair’ is very much desired, and an outer symbol of emancipation and sexuality, just as it was in the 19th century.

And then there’s Lady Godiva , who has allowed herself to return to her natural condition – though naked she’s shielded by her hair, so that her nakedness is both screened and underlined by the presence of her flowing locks. Freedom and free-flowing hair were very closely intertwined in 19th century thinking.

Lady Godiva
Lady Godiva: as imagined by the Pre-Raphaelite Collier, and as re-enacted in the 1930 edition of the Bloxwich Carnival

“Hairiness indicates animal nature: it is the distinctive sign of the wilderness and its inhabitants, and bears the freight of Judaeo-Christian ambivalence about the place of instinct and nature, fertility and sexuality.”

Some babies are born completely woolly. It’s called lanugo. It gives some mothers a shock if they’re not warned that that can happen. They think they’ve given birth to a little wolf.

Charles le Brun / Li Baoshu
Wolf-Man by Charles le Brun, and Li Baoshu, an unusually hirsute Chinese man

Now we’ve changed in our relationship to the idea of the wolf-child or wolf-man. Since they first appeared they’ve been seen as experiments in humanising, and civilising or taming. It was probably genuinely philanthropy, people wanted to bring them back into the human fold, whereas now, the idea of the hairy outsider has a much more compelling fascination, and really in a way beckons us to join them in the outside. We’ve become much more interested in wildness, and breaking free. Just look at the success of a book like The Women who run with the Wolves. That kind of interpretation couldn’t have been written before the last century.

Before, all we wanted to do was to run away from the wolf side, to escape from wolfishness. Now we’ve changed our attitudes. We see the freedom of the wolf as an exciting, different state to be in. But this doesn’t mean that popular culture isn’t full of beastly, furry, monstrous things that terrify – King Kong, for example. Kong is very much a symbol of the psychological return of the repressed, made into a vast spectacle, destroying cities and civilisations, in the same way as was seen before, with the unleashing of the beast. There are still contradictions, obviously.

Iconic blondes and magic locks

“Beauty with the Golden Hair is only one of the teeming population of blonde fairytale heroines. The etymology of the word ‘blond(e)’ is not known for certain, though it appears related to blandus, Latin for charming (as survives in ‘blandishment’), with later influence from Medieval Latin blundus and Old German blund, both meaning yellow. It enters French in the twelfth century, and is later used with affectionate diminutives for the young – and boys more than girls – as in blondin, blondinet. It appears in Chaucer as ‘blounde’, but then fades from view in English until the seventeenth century, when it was almost exclusively applied in the feminine,‘blonde’; it still suggested sweetness, charm, youthfulness; only in the 1930s and 1940s, under the influence of Hollywood, did the word emerge as a noun, and acquire its hot, vampish overtones, based in the jaunty ironical reversals of meaning cultivated by popular media this century.”

Iconic Blonde: Grace Kelly, German hair lotion advertisement, and Marylin Monroe

There are two distinctive kinds of blonde: the cool blonde, and the bubbly blonde. Lauren Bacall is the pre-eminent iconic cool blonde of film noir; Grace Kelly, too. The cool blonde of noir is sophisticated and upper class, supremely elegant. The idea is that beneath this glacial, ice-maiden exterior there are all these seething, perverted motives. There’s a very strong fantasy there of what a woman can get up to. The bubbly blonde is the dumb blonde: Marilyn falls into that more than into the other category, though she’s very complex. So as the dumb bubbly kittenish blonde, she also plays to another strand – the idea of the child, the innocence of the child being titillating because it’s embodied in a woman. It’s the beginning of that 20th century Lolita fixation. Marilyn very much plays on that: she’s got this soft kittenish voice and very sweet smile, and yet her sexual characteristics are incredibly highly marked – with her breasts and her wiggling bottom, and all that sort of thing. She’s very strongly sexual, while apparently having all that energy contained within a child’s character.

Even at this stage, it’s very ironical. There was already a lot of irony packed into the cinematic blonde before Marilyn. In a sense she was parodying all those other blondes – the virgin martyrs, golden-haired heroines of fairytale, Cinderellas and sleeping beauties – and taking them into other areas of motivation and malignancy and sexual expertise and knowledge, and no innocence at all.

Then of course there’s the next generation, who doubly ironise – the bottle blonde who is clearly pretending, on every level, like Madonna, who has worked on it brilliantly. So it gets very complicated. Indeed, whole departments of universities have become devoted to this topic.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lilith is a beautiful red-head – with red-blonde spelling danger, far more than the yellow blonde.

LEFT: Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. RIGHT: Scene from the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's film Ten

Shaving is pretty much the world over a symbol of renunciation or humiliation. Renunciation when you perform it yourself; humiliation when it’s done to you. That’s strongly universal. Buddhist priests to tonsures. It’s very highly gendered. For a woman to cut her hair is more a symbol of renunciation than a man. But now with men shaven everywhere, it’s not that at all. It’s something very different. It’s more an assertion of masculinity.

Hair now: re-dressing the narrative

Hair is so much of something different of the body that it translates into art – it has an in-between character, as both matter and representation of matter in some more perennial form. After all, art often aspires to a condition beyond time that’s very different from mortal flesh. And the part of the body that has that, much more than teeth or bones, that lasts longer – is hair. It has an immaterial immortality about it, while being so very material in its effect upon us. Its frisson-effect upon us is that it is actually alive matter, somehow still alive. Its quality of being curiously inert and impervious gives it this uncanny life.

In the current exhibition at the National Gallery in London of Ron Mueck’s effigies, the only real, natural element is the hair. Every single hair is fixed into the silicone with a needle so that it looks as though it’s grown there – leg hair, underarm hair, pubic hair. He uses his own, I think. Also, in the Freud Museum in London, there’s a rug that an American woman, a friend of Anna Freud, wove on a loom – using clippings from her favourite chows. It unites memorialising – in the case of the pet dogs – with a way of keeping them alive.

This also seems to be the case with for example these fascinating ‘hair dresses’ knitted by Emily Bates in 1994 from three different colours of human hair – blonde, brunette, redhead. By using hair-clippings from the hairdressers, it memorialises many different people.

hair dress, with detail
LEFT: Sibilla. Human hair dress, by Emily Bates (1997). Height 260cm. RIGHT: Details of the same dress

The dresses transgress a taboo about the human body. It’s much more than simply witnessing the appearance of hair accumulating in the wrong place – which has the effect of seeing dirt in the wrong place. This is different. It’s very raw, frissony. To actually put on and wear these dresses would be very difficult. And partly because of this, it makes you feel funny because of the personal connection – there’s a trace of cannibalism, as though you’ve come, by a critical degree, too close to another person.

In exactly the same way, wearing the hair of someone you love as jewellery now feels to us, as it didn’t to the Victorians, very strange, and rather cannibalistic – like having their bone, and keeping it on the mantelpiece. It gives you a deep sense of recoil.

This work resonates very well with some of the great questions of our time surrounding transplants. How much identity is transmitted if you have someone else’s organs. Obviously it isn’t the case that these material sheddings of the body convey character or personality at all. Clearly they aren’t linked in some way with that person’s individuality. But we have some kind of sensitivity that they might be.

Now there are urban legends growing up around transplanted organs, where people believe that they have memories that come from the organ’s previous owner. There’s a flourishing new parapsychology about this. In America there was the story that a woman who received the organ of someone who had been murdered, believed that she could identify the killer because she received a message from the organ. These kinds of spectral links come through also in these hair-dresses.

It’s what makes them so ghostly. Does the hair bear traces of these lost personalities? Supposedly, the transplant de-personalises the organs – you don’t know where or who they come from – so it isn’t supposed to matter. But nevertheless, one must feel that something lingers. I don’t think I could ever wear anything woven out of someone’s hair. I’d feel very strange about it. It brings you very close to the lost people, to the feeling and presence of so many lost people – the presence of souls, unidentifiable and anonymous souls caught up in this spun hair.

This wraps up the ‘hair’ project. Next: Shorelines. Inspired? Send your thoughts to

hairy teacup

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